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Mobile-Era Marketing

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by Thad McIlroy, publishing analyst


Mobile is where today’s customers are headed and where tomorrow’s customers already dwell. And mobile marketing requires a leader who can articulate a compelling technology strategy and keep it on course.

This is a vexing issue for publishers. Mobile won’t succeed without a top-level commitment at the company, because a mobile program will cost more than was budgeted, take longer to complete than planned, and initially deliver poorer results than expected.

A term from science fiction/computer science helps characterize the mobile mindset: grok. One definition is: “to have an intuitive understanding of; to know something without having to think about it.” When you dream in a foreign language or can tell jokes in a foreign language, you grok it.

You’ll start to grok mobile when you wean yourself from your desktop computer and live your life on smartphones and tablets. You’ll start to grok mobile when you shift all your reading from print to digital. Grokking mobile means keeping in touch with friends and family via texting rather than e-mail. Shopping mobile is grokking mobile.

To immerse themselves in the mobile universe, publishing staff require a tablet, a smartphone, and an e-reader. Because many of the best content apps are created just for Apple’s iOS, the tablet should be an iPad. The smartphone could then be an Android phone for seeing how the other half lives (although, once again, publishing customers are more likely to be iPhone owners). Staff should also have access to a late model Android tablet. Without question, an Amazon Kindle is the e-reader choice.

As you explore mobile marketing options, it’s important to remember that mobile marketing complements existing book-marketing programs. It doesn’t replace them. For the next few years publishers are going to straddle the divide between traditional book marketing and mobile initiatives, and with mobile integrated into marketing it will be essential not to lose sight of the basics. Here are some findings to keep in mind.

Why People Buy

Publishers have always understood that the factors influencing book buying vary widely. The chart below dates to 2002, before online sales moved the needle. Some of the responses were specific to retail channels—for example, “cover art” and “display.” But these factors are now spawning digital equivalents. Cover art, even at postage stamp size, has proven to impact online print and e-book sales. And display, that is, display in an e-tailer storefront, is also proving to be remarkably powerful.

Here’s an updated look at book purchase influences, both print and digital. It was released by Nielsen in December 2014. While it’s specific to teens, 13 to 17 years old, I think readers of any age will find themselves nodding their heads at the patterns revealed. It shows that the range of influences on the buy impulse is as varied as ever.


In 2012, a Pew survey reported on reasoning behind e-book/print book preferences.


Price Preferences

Today’s online retailers still can’t match book superstores when it comes to creating serendipitous awareness of important titles. But the online retailers do have advantages.

Their more profound (but tougher-to-measure) advantage involves informing and motivating readers: Web browsing exposes people to more books more often, sometimes via low-cost (or free) promotions, giveaways, and e-book loans; additional information about authors and their work is just a click or two away; and online communities bring readers and writers together.

Other advantages include unparalleled selection of in-stock current titles, most available for one- or two-day delivery, generally at lower prices; and an extraordinary range of self-published e-books available only online, usually at prices lower than those of similar books from traditional publishers.

Numerous surveys and analyses published in recent years offer a range of sometimes contradictory advice about the best price for an e-book. Larger publishers routinely set new e-book prices above $10 as long as the discounted hardcover price remains at least several dollars higher. A separate school of thought, articulated mostly by self-published authors, maintains that e-book prices should be closer to $4 than to $12. Trade publishers, they say, are overpricing e-books in an attempt to protect their channels for print sales.

Compared to many other consumer goods, books are as affordable today as they were the year the movie Titanic was released. Since that time, movie prices have outpaced inflation by 50 percent.


In the early days of the Kindle, Amazon subsidized the prices of newly released e-books, maintaining them at $9.99 or lower. Sales surged. Self-published books entered the market at still lower retail prices. For the first time since the introduction of mass-market paperbacks, the industry could see the price sensitivity of book buyers. Once prices dropped below a certain point, books became an impulse buy. Readers who bought a book for three bucks didn’t much care if they ever read it. If they had to pay $11.99, hesitations could creep in.

On mobile devices, the sale may be lost if a book buyer hesitates. Low-price impulse buyers have little resistance and fewer regrets. Fingers move fast.

Kobo’s detailed white paper “Power Pricing 2014” (available via cafekobo.com) notes that sales begin to tail off once the retail price moves above $9.99. In his 2014 Smashwords Survey, CEO Mark Coker noted that e-books priced at $.99, $2.99, and $3.99 have the highest unit sales, and that “the highest earning indie authors are utilizing lower average prices than the authors who earn less.” However, he adds, “This doesn’t mean that ultra-low prices such as $.99 are the path to riches; $2.99 and $3.99 are the sweet spots for most of the bestsellers.” And he has discovered that “non-fiction earns more at higher prices.”


Various indices offer different guidance for assessing prices abroad. The Economist’s “Big Mac Index,” for example, measures the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac in countries around the world. Launched half in jest in 1986, the index has become a useful guide to understanding purchasing parity worldwide. By using the index, you could determine that an e-book retailing for $9.99 in the United States should be priced at $7.49 in the Czech Republic, $4.99 in Indonesia, and $3.49 in India (using standard e-book price points in US dollars).

Clearly, a lot of work is necessary to find the balance of price-to-profit by book type, device, publication date, frequency of purchase, and more. Perhaps there aren’t three times as many users who will spend $3.99 on an e-book as would spend $11.99 for the same title. Fortunately, publishers can test new pricing strategies online, along with other variables such as cover design, subject category, and enhanced metadata.

What Part Social Media Plays

Social media is synonymous with mobile, especially on smartphones. And social media now dominates consumer decision-making. But it doesn’t invalidate the specific reasons for book buying noted above. Instead, social media supports those choices while offering new channels to spread the word.


Help for mobile marketers developing social media strategies is at hand in George Silverman’s book The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing and Chad Renando’s blog Sideways Thoughts. Silverman details a spectrum of opportunities accessible in the digital universe.

Adapted from The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Adapted from The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Omnichannel Action

Devin Wenig, president of eBay Marketplaces, gave McKinsey, the consulting firm, a must-read interview about the future of retail in the age of mobile. “It’s not about the phone or the desktop or the store—it’s about all of those,” he said. “They’ve just come together, the on- and the offline. Now, every merchant, every retailer must have an omnichannel strategy or they won’t survive.”

For instance:


Publisher and author websites can feature coupons offering discounts or bonuses. Book retailers can offer in-store coupons. Coupon Sherpa provides a handful of both book publisher and retailer coupons. Coupon Cabin has a wider assortment. Some of these online coupons highlight a couponing “no-no”: touting “specials” that are already freely available at the reseller’s stores or website.

Humanitas, a publisher in Bucharest, Romania, launched an imaginative program combining the physical with the digital. Posters in subway stations featured Humanitas titles. Readers chose titles from a large selection, scanned a QR code, and received a sample of the book. If they liked what they read, they could buy the complete book by using a button linked to the Humanitas site.

All of which underlines the basic point that mobile strategies aren’t standalone efforts. They’re part of a broader digital strategy, encompassing the web, e-mail, and social media. In turn, digital strategies are aligned with more traditional marketing strategies, including print reviews and advertising, author appearances, and a bricks-and-mortar retail plan.

Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing analyst and consultant. This article is adapted from his new report, Mobile Strategies for Digital Publishing: A Practical Guide to the Evolving Landscape, available online at all leading booksellers. To learn more: thad@thefutureofpublishing.com.

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